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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Jane Austen's Letter 154: Mary's "extremely acceptable" gift of seacale

Our nearly 40 month group read of Jane Austen's letters in Janeites and Austen-L is only a few weeks from completion, and this week the topic is Letter 154 written to 12  year old niece  Caroline, daughter of Jane's eldest brother James. 

It is a very short letter  and one  short passage in it was under discussion in the groups:

"Tell your Mama, I am very much obliged to her for the Ham she intends sending me, she intends sending me, & that the Seacale will be extremely acceptable—is I should say, as we have got it already;—the future, relates only to our time of dressing it, which will not be till Uncles Frank & Henry dine here together."

Re the impending gift of the seacale from Mary Lloyd Austen, given either to JA personally (like the ham), or to the Chawton Cottage household as a whole (JA writes “WE have got it already”), JA writes to Mary via Caroline, of JA’s intent to save the seacale for a special dinner where 2 Austen brothers will be present.

From that angle, it sounds at first as if JA understood the gift to have NOT been for JA’s personal medical benefit, as has been speculated so far.  Plus, there is the following tidbit from Wikipedia, which adds to the idea of its being intended as a gift of a delicacy, not a medicinal.

“By the early 18th century it had become established as a garden vegetable, but its height of popularity was the early 19th century when sea kale appeared in Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book of 1809, and it was served at the Prince Regent's Royal Pavilion in Brighton.”

If it was considered special by both Thomas Jefferson and the Prince Regent, then it was certainly special enough for a special dinner at Chawton Cottage. But anytime JA interacted with Mary Lloyd Austen, our radar should be tuned extra sensitively for irony and subtext, given the long history between JA and Mary, most saliently the "rape of Steventon" that occurred in 1801, when the Austens moved to Bath, and Mary and James swooped in like vultures to scoop up family valuables, and JA lost her and her father's beloved book collection.

And from that angle, I definitely detected subtext in this seemingly trivial request that Caroline relay JA’s thanks for  this gift from Mary. But how to read it correctly?  The key, as my subject line indicates, is the phrase " extremely acceptable”, which, upon examination, carries a tone of deliberately faint praise, a whiff of mockery of the gift, via oxymoron, mixing the strength of “extremely” with the tepidity of “acceptable”.

It reminded me immediately of Marianne Dashwood’s calling Elinor out for her faint expression of love for Edward:

“"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
Marianne here burst forth with indignation— "Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."

And on a hunch, I searched for any instances of “extremely acceptable” in JA’s novels—I found one, and I wonder if anyone will tell me it is just a coincidence where I found it:

"A thousand a-year is a great deal for a mother to give away, to make over for ever; but Mrs. Ferrars has a noble spirit. To give you another instance of her liberality:—The other day, as soon as we came to town, aware that money could not be very plenty with us just now, she put bank-notes into Fanny's hands to the amount of two hundred pounds. And extremely acceptable it is, for we must live at a great expense while we are here."

Is it just a coincidence that the one character in all of JA’s novels who uses this expression is John Dashwood, who, as I have shown on several occasions during this long group read, is a representation of James Austen, who was, of course, Mary's husband!

And look at what John Dashwood is talking about – the "noble spirit” and “liberality" of the horrible, heartless, malevolent Mrs. Ferrars, who has given his wife (her daughter), an already very rich woman, more money! And he's talking to Elinor Dashwood to his half-sister, without the slightest awareness or concern of how this sounds to her, for whom every pound is precious.

I just checked and saw that John Mullan in his recent excellent book What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, wrote the following at p. 204 about John Dashwood: 
“His obtuseness and vulgarity are made worse by his announcement that Mrs. Ferrars, his mother in law, has just given his wife [200 pounds]…The stupidity of his avarice is all in that phrase ‘extremely acceptable’, used in talking to a sister who is so pushed for money that she has come  to the shop to negotiate the sale of [jewelry].”

So for JA to use that very same unique, oxymoronic phrase to describe the gift by Mary Austen to JA, it is clearly a veiled sarcasm of great magnitude, and an unmistakable allusion to that passage published 6 years earlier in S&S. Whether dull elf Mary would understand the irony, let alone catch the allusion, I have no idea---my guess is that she never read S&S, but she might just have realized  she was being  put on, and that JA was having the last laugh.

I think the veiled message JA sent to Mary, with complete deniability if challenged, is that everyone in the family knows that JA is very ill, and it is particularly galling to JA that Mary is taking the opportunity for some fake generosity, a la Mrs. Ferrars, when JA, by this time seriously ill, needed some other, tangible and not symbolic help?

It seems to me that Mary intended the gift for JA, as if it was supposed to be genuine charity, but JA chose to say, in code,  “We will prepare it for the brothers, because I don’t want your token, unhelpful faux charity that helps me not at all, seriously ill as I actually am.”

And now, finally, I am also reminded of Jane Fairfax refusing Emma’s gift of arrowroot! JA doesn't refuse the seacale, but she makes it very clear to Mary that JA personally is not going to benefit from the gift---in effect, she passes it on to the brothers, and so, even if only symbolically, refuses the gift to herself.

And all that, because I've come to understand that a slight nuance of expression means everything in Jane Austen, in her letters as well as her novels.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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